Interview: Ted Mathot
The talented artist says working under the wing of Oscar-winner Brad Bird helped him make the big leap from storyboard artist on The Simpsons to story supervisor on The Incredibles 2. But this could just be the beginning for the Boston native. Now a fledgling graphic novelist, Mathot’s own stories seem poised to fly.
The Incredibles 2
Starring: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Catherine Keener, Bob Odenkirk
Director: Brad Bird
Opening June 15
By Katherine Monk
VANCOUVER — Ted Mathot is a mild-mannered guy from New England who could easily disappear into the crowd of selfie-snapping tourists currently meandering through the lobby of this luxury waterfront hotel. Yet, behind the unremarkable glasses and zippered cardigan, is a man whose business is nothing less than the fantastic.
A skilled artist with ink and pen, Mathot has spent the last two decades creating other worlds on paper populated by the bizarre, the beastly and the Homeric. Originally a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design, the Boston native found work with as a storyboard artist on The Simpsons, moved on to Dreamworks and Hanna-Barbara, then Pixar, where he found his niche working alongside Brad Bird — the director-writer behind 2004’s The Incredibles, 2007’s Ratatouille and, yes, 2011’s Ghost Protocol — the Tom Cruise Mission: Impossible live-action thriller.
Under Bird’s wing, Mathot says he’s learned many things, including how a camera should fly. Yeah. Fly. That’s what you can do in the world of animation. You can pretty much do anything, but Mathot says a key lesson from Bird was how the rules of cinema — and camera mechanics — will always apply, no matter how unreal the images may be.
You can see Mathot’s eyes sparkle a little when he talks about it all, which he was recently assigned to do as part of a new exhibit now showing at Vancouver’s Science World, “The Science of Pixar.” Yet, he also took time to speak to local media about Incredibles 2, the long-awaited sequel to the groundbreaking superhero comedy that pulled in over $600 million at the box office and marked the animation studio’s first foray into the riskier world of PG-rated entertainment.
He says he’s not a natural public speaker, but talking about Incredibles is a pleasure — especially since he was integral in making the sequel exactly what it is. Bird promoted Mathot to the role of Story Supervisor, a job that doesn’t give you star billing on the credits, but definitely puts you in the middle of the action.
“Being the story supervisor, it’s my job to keep the entire movie in my head the whole time. And that includes where we’ve been and where we might be going. There are surprises, sure, but generally when you are crafting this thing, you kind of know where you are going. And working with Brad, he genuinely knows where he is going.”
Mathot says his central role is essentially supporting Bird. “If he writes pages, and that’s the other thing about Brad, he is the writer and the director — and we could talk about that — but he’ll write pages and in the morning he will hand them to me and say: Hey, what do you think of these? And initially, it was very intimidating to me. Because he’s a very good writer. Very, very funny….” says Mathot, smiling.
“You know, to get pages and to be asked what you think of them, you have to have something to say. Because if I say they’re great, he’ll kind of look at me sideways and be like ‘yeah, I don’t know about this.’ So it’s about trust.”
That comes comes with time, says Mathot. “I was story artist on first Incredibles and Mark Andrews was the story supervisor. He worked with Brad on Iron Giant. And I learned a lot from Mark and took that with me. On this one, Brad thought it was my time and asked me.”
Bird gave Mathot full control over the choices he made, from the storyboard team to the structure. “He always had an ear and was willing to listen.”
Mathot says he has no idea how much the film cost to make. No doubt, it’s a big number, but Mathot says the production actually felt small.
“It’s a huge film but it felt small to me because we had to go so fast, that all the departments had to hold hands and communicate — much more so than they normally do on a film. And I loved that. I was coming in early and having breakfast with the leads in effects and lighting and simulation and layout and camera. We’d all come in early because we had a lot of stuff to do and we would just talk — about what’s coming, about what we’re going to do.”
It’s a huge film but it felt small to me because we had to go so fast, that all the departments had to hold hands and communicate — much more so than they normally do on a film. And I loved that.
At a certain point, it becomes clear the movie was a constant work in progress — even the script. “Sure, we had a completed script before we started shooting. But we never make that movie. We always change it. That’s not new.”
He says the best take on the difference between live action and animation came from a writer he once spoke with. “A live action movie will have a hundred scripts and make the best one of those hundred. At Pixar, we have one script and generate it a hundred times…. This started out as a completely different film from the one we made. More often than not, that happens. That’s the nature of animation: We change things because we can.”
Unlike many of their peers, the people at Pixar don’t use their ability to change things to accommodate a real world event or pop culture phenomenon. “We always try to keep a timeless quality to the work, and that’s been the same from the beginning at Pixar. We want people to watch these films 20 years from now and not have them feel dated. So we stay away from anything culturally that’s going on. Or we try to, at least.”
Yet, with the possible exception of Cars, the Pixar films do feel culturally relevant. Even their signature first short, Luxo Jr., about the little desk lamp, seemed to say something about the elusive joy of the 1980s. The Incredibles humanized the superhero without compromising the fantasy.
A live action movie will have a hundred scripts and make the best one of those hundred. At Pixar, we have one script and generate it a hundred times…
“That’s what makes the two sides of these movies: The incredible and the banal. We never want anything too incredible to happen for too long without something banal happening. And vice versa. We don’t want to be mundane without being super. We go through every scene and make sure we have that.”
Mixing family issues with superhero crises is where we pick up with the Incredible story once more. Superheroes are still outlawed, but a mogul wants to bring them back into the spotlight — for suspect reasons — and sees Helen (Elastigirl – Holly Hunter) as the perfect public relations mascot. Now left to deal with the nuclear family fallout on his own, dad Bob (Craig T. Nelson) is busy trying to maintain the peace with Dash, Violet and baby Jack-Jack, who is just beginning to manifest his super-gifts.
Mathot says he likes every part of the process, but character and story are where the magic really happens. No doubt it’s why he creates his own graphic novels (Rose and Isabel, Cora) and hopes to write and direct his own feature one day. Once again, he credits Bird with making him aware of what makes a great story.
“Brad is really just a terrific, terrific writer,” says Mathot. “I had been following him since the early early days of The Simpsons and was lucky enough to get to work with him on that show… so it’s funny, because we hadn’t met each other until he came to Pixar even though we had worked together. So on the Simpsons, I was the storyboard artist. I would draw my storyboards and then they would package them all up in a big mailer send them off to Brad, and he would sit down in a coffee shop and go through them and he would make notes and then they would send them back.”
Mathot’s eyes widen. “When the Brad notes came in, it was like Christmas morning. We’d tear open the package. Like, I want my notes! You’d get these terrific filmmaker notes from Brad.”
Ask Mathot to get a little more specific, and he’s happy to oblige. “So many examples, but he really knows how to tell a joke. And this was early in my career so it was really great to see how it could be improved.”
He cites a particular example from The Simpsons. Even though the scripts were locked by the time they hit the storyboard department, Mathot says the execution and visualization of each gag was up to the artists.
When the Brad notes came in, it was like Christmas morning. We’d tear open the package. Like, I want my notes!
“We would storyboard that joke the best way we could visually. Then we would send our boards off and Brad would of course, make them so much better. He would give notes which were really interesting to me as filmmaker notes. I storyboarded an episode of the Simpsons where Marge finds this Chanel suit on the bargain rack and she immediately becomes noticed by this group of socialites. But she’s only got the one Chanel suit, so she has to re-tailor it every time so it looks like a different suit. And there’s a scene in the show where Homer comes running out of the kitchen with Maggie and she is covered with food…
“He yells at Marge. ‘Take Maggie!’ And I had storyboarded it a certain way, and this is going to be deep — kind of filmmaking wise — but he said more ‘Cohen brothers less John Landis.’”
Mathot explains. “I love both of those filmmakers but he had a very specific idea in mind in terms of how the shot was to be done. This is nothing against John Landis. I love the Blues Brothers. I also love Raising Arizona. So basically, the baby is flying at Marge, but the camera is flying along with the baby. As if it’s attached to the baby. Raising Arizona is a good example. So when you are working with Brad, you are going to get notes like that — and it sort of forces you to dig in a little deeper about what he’s getting at.”
Mathot says Bird is probably the most cinematic of all the directors he’s worked with at Pixar, but every one of them has a unique way of working. “Brad gives a lot of camera-related notes. Like put a 50mm on it. You have to know how to draw. You have to know what that means and what that looks like,” he says.
“I think every director at Pixar has a different method. Working for Brad is different from working for Pete Docter (Inside Out) or any of the other directors. They all have a way that they work. Like I was saying about the camera stuff, that’s very specific to Brad.”
You’d think with animation you wouldn’t be hampered by the rules of physics and refraction, but Mathot reiterates how important real world rules really are, and why some of the biggest advances in animation have actually come from the “virtual cameras.”
For instance, in Wall-E, award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Barton Fink, Shawshank Redemption, Revolutionary Road, Sicario) was tapped to retool the code strings for the cameras. The changes were subtle, but mind-altering for those paying attention: Deakins programmed ‘lens flare’ — a typical mistake that happens when a lens captures bright light and you can see a series of polygons reflecting the many lens elements, and maybe even the iris.
The “mistake” made the movie feel more real, and the floating space sequence a magical moment of robot romance.
“I nerd out on that stuff,” says Mathot. “When Deakins came in it was OMG. He improved our cameras and how we shoot stuff. Wall-E was revolutionary in that regard.”
When you’re surrounded by your own heroes every day, going to work is a true joy. But Mathot says you can’t just sit back and stroke ego at Pixar — especially not under Bird.
Mathot says you can’t just sit back and stroke ego at Pixar — especially not under Bird.
“He loves the people that push back on him. And if you are going to push back on Brad, you have to have a great argument. That’s something I learned on this movie because it’s very easy to have a good idea and talk about it, but Brad will take your idea home with him and come back the next day and say ‘I’ve thought about your idea, and here’s what’s wrong with it – and he’ll list off one, two, three, four, five problems.”
Brad will always listen, says Mathot, but the most important lesson was to think everything through before opening his mouth. “It’s tempting as a story artist to throw ideas out there without thinking them through completely, even if they are good ideas. But you need to take every idea and think about how it affects every part of the story and then present it to Brad — so he doesn’t have to sweat about it. Often you can solve one problem, but create more… It’s one of the reasons I love what I do. I’m always learning.”
The Incredibles 2 opens June 15 with special early screenings Thursday.
Main art: Concept art from Disney-Pixar’s The Incredibles 2.
THE EX-PRESS, June 13, 2018